Forum Editorial: People are dying unnecessarily because North Dakota has failed to face its mental health crisis
North Dakota has been earnestly studying its acknowledged mental health crisis for years. But unless it provides adequate community-based services, its jails and morgues will fill with casualties of the failure to address this problem.
Many are probably surprised to learn that more people die from suicide or drug overdose than in highway accidents in North Dakota. That’s because mental illness and drug dependency are often hidden in the shadows, in no small part because of the stigma attached to them.
But it’s no secret that North Dakota has faced a serious mental health crisis for years. Seven years ago, a consultant’s report to the Legislature concluded bluntly that North Dakota’s mental health system was in crisis.
Adults were locked up in jail because mental health services were lacking, the consultant wrote. Untreated mental illness was ending in suicide. The gaps in services were especially dire in western North Dakota.
And today, seven years later? Those problems persist at agonizingly high levels. North Dakota has been earnestly studying the issue and laying foundations for better mental health services.
The state can point to some areas of progress. The state’s eight regional human service centers now have mental health crisis response teams with round-the-clock coverage. The state provides significant funding to enable uninsured addicts to receive residential treatment for substance use disorder. Peer counseling services are available through the Free Through Recovery program.
But, as made clear by a series of articles in The Forum, “System Under Stress,” our jails are still holding many inmates who are criminals, but suffer from untreated mental illness. This population is extremely difficult to deal with, with people repeatedly cycling through the criminal justice system and being warehoused in jails, where there usually is no treatment.
If you don’t believe North Dakota has a serious problem with untreated mental illness, talk to your local law enforcement officers, prosecutors and jailers, who too often must deal with a problem that has yet to be seriously addressed.
The extent of the problem, quite frankly, is shameful.
The problem exists statewide, but is especially bad in western North Dakota, where there are no psychiatric inpatient treatment beds, even though the population in that part of the state has soared since the boom hit the Oil Patch.
All too often, community-based services that are critically important in treating ongoing mental illness are inadequate or nonexistent.
All too often, people go without treatment, at a staggering cost to families and society in terms of human suffering and lost productivity.
An interim committee of the North Dakota Legislature is studying the state’s acute psychiatric treatment needs. The committee — working with the same consultant that sounded the alarm in 2014 — will make recommendations to the 2023 legislative session about what should be done with the aging and glaringly inadequate State Hospital.
It would be a profound mistake if leaders decide simply to build a new hospital in Jamestown. This is a problem in every community throughout the state, one that cries out for local and regional services to make treatment accessible.
Decades ago, we moved dramatically to deinstitutionalize care for the seriously mentally ill. That was a humane and appropriate response to the problems of simply confining the mentally ill for years or even decades.
But we failed to set up a system of community services to adequately take care of this difficult population. As a society, we have ignored their pain and suffering. As a result, we are losing people to suicide and overdose or to lives spent in unproductive misery.
North Dakota has the resources to fix this problem to a significant extent. We’ve spent years studying the issue. Now we have to follow through and find the ways to provide the essential services at the community level.
Until we do that, our jails and morgues will be filled with casualties of our failure to address this shameful problem.